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Iowa State University assistant professor of veterinary clinical services Margaret Musser, who recently received a $34,000 Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics Industry Partnership Seed Grant. Together, Musser and Wesley Wierson, founder of Minnesota-based biotechnology company LEAH Labs, will use the funding to combine their respective expertise to study novel treatment options for currently incurable cancers in dogs. Photo courtesy of Margaret Musser
08.14.2020

OVPR Awards Bioscience Seed Grant to Further Canine Cancer Research

By Caitlin Ware, Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research

As part of continued efforts to cement Iowa as a national leader in bioscience initiatives, the Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research recently awarded a $34,000 Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics Industry Partnership Seed Grant to investigate the use of targeted cell therapies to treat canine cancers.

Following Gov. Kim Reynolds’ 2017 identification of multiple bioscience platforms as key growth engines for Iowa’s economy — including vaccines and immunotherapeutics, biobased products, and digital and precision agriculture — Iowa State, with funding provided by the State of Iowa for the 2020 fiscal year, developed a series of seed grants designed to facilitate better industry-university bioscience collaborations. Assistant professor of veterinary clinical services Margaret Musser and industry partner Wesley Wierson, founder of Minnesota-based biotechnology company LEAH Labs, are the latest team to receive funding focused on accelerating progress in the area of vaccines and immunotherapeutics. The pair will receive $34,000 over the next year and combine their respective expertise to study novel treatment options for currently incurable cancers in dogs.

“The biosciences and the vaccines and immunotherapeutics platform, in particular, offer a tremendous opportunity to improve lives and advance and grow Iowa’s economy,” said Guru Rao, interim Iowa State University vice president for research. “Iowa State University is committed to supporting bioscience-based initiatives by accelerating commercially-focused research and technology transfer that can have a positive impact on both economic development and society as a whole.”

Founded by Iowa State University and Mayo Clinic scientists, LEAH Labs operates as a seed stage biotechnology company with the goal of curing diseases in dogs with cell therapies. One type of cell therapy, CAR-T cell therapy, has shown success in the treatment of human blood cancers, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Dogs also suffer from the same cancer, but to date, the only available treatment is costly and time-intensive chemotherapy, which typically only extends life expectancy for 10-12 months. Musser and Wierson (an Iowa State alumnus who began developing the core gene-editing technology of LEAH Labs while pursuing his Ph.D.) will use Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics Industry Partnership Seed Grant funding to explore using CAR-T cell therapy in canine patients, with the hope that it can be successfully activated in dogs, tolerated safely with manageable side effects, and used to reduce or eliminate tumors.

By using a One Health model in their research, Musser and Wierson plan to capitalize on the environment, genetics, physiology, and diseases shared by both dogs and humans, ultimately translating the outcomes of treating canine cancers with CAR-T cell therapy into better approaches for human patients in the future.

“Despite advances in treatment for canine lymphoma over the past several decades, outcome expectations have not changed significantly,” Musser said. “My colleagues and I at the Lloyd Veterinary Medical Center are excited to investigate this new treatment approach, which will hopefully improve outcomes for our canine patients and provide additional evidence for this treatment in humans.”

The first phase of Musser and Wierson’s research will include preliminary studies necessary to ensure treatment efficacy and safety. Canine patient treatments are expected to begin in early 2021.

“Our vision is to use this grant to develop CAR-T cell therapy as an effective and affordable treatment for cancer in our furry friends, giving them a final chance at a healthy life after chemotherapy has failed them,” Wierson said. “Our team is honored and humbled to have been selected for this award and to know that Iowa State University believes in our mission. We hope that this project will be the beginning of a long collaboration between LEAH Labs and the Lloyd Veterinary Medical Center.”

The Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics Industry Partnership Seed Grant is open to all Iowa State University faculty, with up to $40,000 in funding per project available. More information can be found here.